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Australia looks to new rules in media struggle against political bias and digital disruption

Australia suffered a slight slip down the World Press Freedom Index in 2019, largely because its media ownership is concentrated in so few hands. Sian Powell explains why.

Front page of every newspaper across Australia was blacked out on October 21 as part of a protest against media restrictions The front page of every newspaper across Australia was blacked out on October 21 as part of a protest against media restrictions

Fears of eroding press freedom have gripped Australian media, most recently hammered home by a respected senior journalist warning of an “unacceptable step down the road to authoritarianism”.

ABC veteran Kerry O’Brien said in his speech at the prestigious Walkley awards event in November that Australia’s government, led by prime minister Scott Morrison, had resisted appeals for freedom of the press protections to be enshrined in law. Meanwhile, “the spirit of freedom of information laws, if not the letter, is being abused and there are more allegations of corruption being investigated officially than ever before”.

O’Brien’s call to arms followed a concerted Your Right to Know campaign by Australian media outlets, which featured blacked-out front pages and websites across the country.

Australian Federal Police raids on journalists in early 2019 had sharpened concern that a range of laws introduced over the past 20 years had cut into the media’s ability to hold the Australian government and powerful industry figures to account.

At the same time, government funding for the national public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, has been cut to the bone under successive conservative governments and there is an increasing belief that “public good” journalism, particularly investigative journalism, court and local government reporting, will need public funding to continue to function adequately.

Australia slipped two places in the World Press Freedom Index last year, to rank 21st; behind Surinam, Uruguay, Estonia, Costa Rica, and Jamaica, as well as the usual Scandinavian suspects. New Zealand, by contrast, was seventh. Britain was 33rd and the U.S., 48th.

Kerry O’Brien Kerry O’Brien

“Australia has good public media but the concentration of media ownership is one of the highest in the world”, Reporters Without Borders concluded. “It became even more concentrated in July 2018, when Nine Entertainment took over the Fairfax media group.”

The Nine-Fairfax merger, enabled by loosened media diversity laws, resulted in a dominant media conglomerate with television, print, radio and digital interests, and the merger has not always been happy.

In early September 2019, Nine, a once supremely successful television network, held a $10,000-a-head Liberal party fund-raiser, a move which infuriated print journalists working for the conglomerate’s top-line daily metropolitan newspapers, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, formerly Fairfax mastheads.

According to insiders, these newspapers have worked hard to maintain their impartiality and independence and to be seen as unbiased observers and reporters. Making money for the government doesn’t sit well with that aim.

Paul Murphy, chief executive of Australia’s main journalism union the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the MEAA), says the Nine-Fairfax merger has been a loss for the Australian media consumer, and indirectly, for the Australian public at large.

“There is no question that the Nine takeover of Fairfax will reduce diversity in Australia’s media, which is already one of the most concentrated in the democratic world”, he says.

“Such concentration threatens the long-standing editorial independence of the former Fairfax newspapers. Mergers often mean cutbacks, redundancies and fewer resources, which in turn leads to a lack of proper scrutiny and investigation of the powerful.” News Ltd, another major player in the Australian media market, publishes metropolitan and regional papers, owns magazines and digital media and has subscription television interests. Between them, Nine and News Ltd call many of the shots in Australian conservative politics, media-watchers say, and they both openly favour the governing Liberal-National conservative coalition.

This increasing concentration and bias of media interests is of concern, but it pales in comparison with the sector-wide upheaval prompted by digital and social media. The 2019 Digital News Report found that more than four in 10 Australians now use online sources as their primary source of news, and many turn to Facebook or Google as a primary news provider.

Yet these global behemoths – social media, or online search tools or content aggregators – are, of course, not Australian, and regulating their content is fraught with difficulties.

About 25 million people live in Australia, and every month about 19.2 million Australians use Google Search, 17.3 million open Facebook, 17.6 million watch YouTube (which is owned by Google) and 11.2 million look at Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). Newspaper publishers and radio and television programmers can only dream about such numbers.

Paul Murphy Paul Murphy

Meanwhile the “rivers of gold”, the classified advertisements that once paid the salaries of Australian newspaper journalists and funded a thriving newspaper industry, have been diverted to online media, including social media, and the print and radio and television sectors continue to suffer.

Terry Flew, Professor of Communication and Creative Industries at the Queensland University of Technology, says there is a role for third-party oversight of the digital platforms, in the body of a government regulatory agency.

Problems arise with the definitions of what those digital platforms actually are.

“To what extent are digital platforms (such as Google and Facebook) media businesses, and to what extent are they not media businesses, and what does that mean for how we reconfigure media and communications policy?” he asks.

Most people who work in the traditional media, Flew says, would describe the platforms as media businesses, and most would see them eroding the foundation of their careers. There’s no doubt these platforms have won over advertisers, who appreciate the flow of information about consumers.

“It’s very hard to offer a better product to advertisers, because of the way digital data from multiple sources feed back into behavioural expectations around users, and feed back into ‘bang for the buck’ for advertisers,” Flew points out.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission handed down its final report on digital platforms last July, and recommended among many other things, an overarching set of regulations; in other words a replacement for the current system whereby different rules apply to print, television and online.

Sian Powell has been at various times a reporter, an editor, an opinion writer and a leader writer for titles including The Times, The Australian, The South China Morning Post, and The Sydney Morning Herald. Recently returned to Hong Kong, she is now looking for work here.

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